In Defense of the Fox News Ban on “Public Option”

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Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon is under fire today for instructing his newsroom – during the height of the health care debate – not to use the term “public option.” Here’s the supposed smoking gun: an e-mail obtained by Media Matters:

From: Sammon, Bill
Sent: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 8:23 AM
To: 054 -FNSunday; 169 -SPECIAL REPORT; 069 -Politics; 030 -Root (FoxNews.Com); 036 -FOX.WHU; 050 -Senior Producers; 051 -Producers
Subject: friendly reminder: let’s not slip back into calling it the “public option”

1) Please use the term “government-run health insurance” or, when brevity is a concern, “government option,” whenever possible.
2) When it is necessary to use the term “public option” (which is, after all, firmly ensconced in the nation’s lexicon), use the qualifier “so-called,” as in “the so-called public option.”
3) Here’s another way to phrase it: “The public option, which is the government-run plan.”
4) When newsmakers and sources use the term “public option” in our stories, there’s not a lot we can do about it, since quotes are of course sacrosanct.

This amounts to “overt political activism,” according to Media Matters, who noted that two months earlier, Republican pollster Frank Luntz had appeared on Sean Hannity’s show. There, Luntz explained that the only about half of Americans opposed the “public option,” while a large majority opposed a “government option.” Hannity called this “a great point” and agreed to stop using the term “public option.”

Media critic Howard Kurtz picked up the story for a column for the Daily Beast today, in which he reports examples of Sammon’s supposed Republican bias on Fox News. Sammon’s e-mail to Fox journalists was a clear case of Fox News fighting the fight of the Republican Party, right? Well, not so fast.

Here’s what Kurtz and Media Matters fail to note: Most Americans did not understand what the “public option” was. The term, in fact, seemed almost intentionally non-descriptive. Scores of journalists asked me during the health care debate to explain to them what the public option was – and these were folks interested in the news and paying attention to the issue.

The public option would have been a government-run insurance plan some Americans could have purchased. It would have been supported by premiums with no government subsidization and would be been purely voluntary. Like Medicare, the reimbursements paid by the public option would have been set by the government. Also like Medicare, the plan would not have needed to turn a profit, making it cost less than private insurance. It would have therefore provided tough competition for private insurers and pushed down premiums throughout the marketplace.

Even Kurtz doesn’t appear to understand this. In his Daily Beast column, he writes:

The public option—an alternative insurance exchange for those who could not get health coverage from their employers—would in fact have been run by the Health and Human Services Department.

This is not quite right. For starters, an insurance exchange is a marketplace. Under health care reform, exchanges, or web portals, will be built in all 50 states, gathering together all private insurance plans available for purchase and organizing pricing and quality information. Secondly, the public option went through a series of iterations and, under one proposal, would have been available to small businesses and even large employers over time. Lastly, Kurtz doesn’t mention in his definition that the government would not have picked up the tab for the public option. These are crucial details.

Americans did not comprehend them. In August 2009, Nate Silver flagged an AARP-sponsored poll that asked, “When politicians talk about including a “public option” in health care reform, what do you think they mean?” The results:

Creating a government-funded insurance company that competes with existing private insurers to offer health coverage at market rates – 37%

Creating a national health care system like they have in Great Britain – 26%

Creating a network of health care cooperatives – 13%

Don’t know – 23%

The New York Times reported in October 2009:

For example, in a poll that NBC News and The Wall Street Journal released on Tuesday, half the respondents were asked one question about the public option, and half were asked a different one.

Just under 50 percent favored a health care plan administered by the federal government to compete with private insurance companies, while 4 in 10 opposed. But, almost three-fourths said it was important to have a choice between a public plan and a private plan.


And Ezra Klein of the Washington Post posted a stark graph on his blog in December 2009, illustrating the fact that two-thirds of Americans said they could not explain the public option.

Given all of this, was it really useful for readers and viewers for reporters to use the term “public option,” which leaves out two very important words – “insurance” and “government”? I think no. In my own reporting, I sometimes just used the term “public option.” One other occasions, I made an effort to add descriptors and qualifiers or say “public plan.”

In retrospect, it’s hard not to wonder if the concept would have survived the legislative process if it had been called the “Medicare option.” Medicare is, after all, widely popular and well understood.

There’s nothing wrong with saying “government-run plan.” That’s what the public option would have been.